CHICAGO — Prof. Muhammad S. Eissa has never been busier.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
Each weekday he teaches Arabic to students at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and because the demand for experienced Arabic instructors has overwhelmed the supply nationwide, his lectures are videotaped for replay in classrooms at a college and a university in Utah.
In his free time, Dr. Eissa, an Egyptian-born Muslim, has also been lecturing church groups and Rotary Clubs that are suddenly eager for information about Islam.
As the pursuit of Al Qaeda and America's confrontation with Iraq intensifies, Arabic-speaking educators and Islamic organizations, as well as universities and schools across the nation, are straining to respond to requests by students and the public for information and instruction about the language and culture of Islam.
"It's just snowballed," said Karin Ryding, who heads Georgetown University's Arabic languages department, which offered five beginning Arabic classes last semester, instead of the usual two. Other universities reported similar increases or new courses because of the demand.
Historically, most Americans have been only dimly aware of Islam and its liturgical language, Arabic, but this is not the first time that national interest has built to a fever. The 1979 hostage crisis in Iran led to a burst of study of the Muslim world, and the federal government made more money available to train teachers of Mideastern languages and for study abroad. By the mid-1980's, however, government and public interest had waned, only to increase again, for a while, at the time of the Persian Gulf war.
But now some of Dr. Eissa's students are digging in for the long term, betting that an intellectual investment in Arabic will pay off in their careers.
"If we go into Iraq, we're going to need to be over there for a long time to build it back," said Lars Longnecker, a third-year law student who decided in December to study Arabic. "So I see our involvement in the Mideast increasing, and I figured Arabic would give me a leg up in that area."
Students across the country appear to agree. Kirk Belnap, a professor of Arabic and the director of a federally financed consortium, the National Middle East Language Resource Center at Brigham Young University, said many universities were reporting "double or triple enrollments" in Arabic classes.
"There's been an explosion in interest," said John C. Eisele, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic. The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., where Dr. Eisele teaches, offered two beginning Arabic classes last fall, but had to turn away 20 students. Because the demand is similar nationwide, many colleges and universities, as well as half a dozen federal agencies, are seeking to hire people fluent in Arabic. "There's a ton of jobs out there," Dr. Eisele said.
It is not only college campuses that have experienced the surge in interest. In Alabama, so many middle school and high school students asked about Islam that nearly 200 Alabama teachers signed up last summer for a course, Understanding Islam, taught by Dr. Angelia Mance, associate director of the National Council on Geographic Education.
"It was the most popular course I've given," said Dr. Mance, who taught it in classrooms packed with teachers in the Alabama towns of Florence, Jasper and Hamilton. One of her students was Gail Spann, a public school librarian whose son, Johnny Michael Spann, an officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, was killed in Afghanistan in November 2001, Dr. Mance said.
"War is God's way of teaching world geography to Americans," Dr. Mance said, quoting Ambrose Bierce, the 19th-century satirist.
The Islamic Networks Group, formed in the mid-1990's by California Muslims who believed their religion was being misrepresented in the public schools, has in recent months expanded its network of speakers bureaus to 25 cities from 18, said Maha ElGenaidi, the group's co-founder, who grew up in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The speakers originally lectured about Islam mostly in public schools, she said, but in recent months, the group has been flooded with invitations to explain the religion to police departments, groups for the elderly, community centers and Rotary Clubs.
But if some Americans are suddenly eager to learn about Islam, there is much ignorance to overcome.
Even many university students "lack a rudimentary knowledge of the nature of the Islamic faith," according to a study published in the September issue of the Journal of Instructional Psychology. After hearing statements betraying ignorance of Islam, its authors, Thomas Mastrilli and Deborah Sardo-Brown, professors at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, circulated a questionnaire among 218 students about to become teachers in public schools.
About half the students could not identify the Koran as the Islamic holy book or Mecca as the holiest Islamic city (one in seven guessed Jerusalem), their report said. Not one of the students surveyed could name the world's three most populous Muslim countries: Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh. The two professors called for more education about Islam to foster religious tolerance.
In contrast, a study released this month warned against too much tolerance of Islam. It was written by Gilbert Sewell, a former education editor at Newsweek who heads the American Textbook Council, a New York group opposed to multicultural teaching. Mr. Sewell examined seven widely used middle school and high school world history textbooks and concluded that publishers made "an effort to circumvent unsavory facts that might cast Islam in anything but a positive light." For instance, textbooks have "defanged" the term jihad, Mr. Sewell contended, defining it as Muslims' struggle for spiritual improvement rather than more narrowly as holy war.
But several textbook publishers criticized Mr. Sewell's objectivity.
"A lot of his language is just slanted against the religion of Islam," said Collin Earnst, a spokesman for Houghton Mifflin.
Bernard Lewis, a Princeton Mideast scholar cited extensively by Mr. Sewell, declined through his assistant to comment on the report. Rashid Khalidi, a professor of history and Near Eastern languages at the University of Chicago, called Mr. Sewell's study "a terribly biased document full of bigoted statements."
Mr. Sewell and his critics agree on the importance of increasing Americans' familiarity with Islamic civilization — the challenge to which Dr. Eissa has devoted his professional life since he began teaching Arabic at American universities in 1978.
"American interest in Islamic affairs comes in waves and then it ebbs," Dr. Eissa said, just before video cameras focused on him as he began conjugating Arabic verbs at the start of another class here. "But this current tide of fascination seems more intense and wider in perspective."
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